TORONTO – Come Tuesday, there will be blood.
Two of Toronto FC's three matches in the the Audi 2016 MLS Cup Playoffs have been fierce encounters. The Knockout Round against Philadelphia was fast-paced and hard-fought. The first leg of the Eastern Conference Semifinal against New York City FC was similarly fractious – though the second was over as a contest before it began.
And the first leg of the Eastern Conference Championship against the Montreal Impact (Tuesday, 8 pm ET, ESPN, TSN1, TSN3, RDS) promises more of the same.
“Being the semifinals, I would not expect it to be anything but physical,” said TFC assistant coach Robin Fraser on Wednesday. “At this time of year, those that have endured are teams that know how to fight and how to scrap. With the rivalry, there's always a little extra and a semifinal, [the] chance to be the first Canadian team in MLS Cup … There's going to be a lot of physical play; it's the way it is this time of year.”
Said defender Eriq Zavaleta: “The ball will be in the air; challenges will have to be made. It's a rivalry. Guys are going to try to win the street fight first.”
With an experienced backline marshaled by Laurent Ciman and three savvy defensive midfielders, Montreal have proven stingy, conceding only a goal per game against two of the hottest teams in MLS.
“They're not going to give an inch,” acknowledged Toronto head coach Greg Vanney on Tuesday. “Any time you play a ball to player, they're going to be right up his back-side. Any time you try to lay a ball off and run, they're going to get a piece. It's a tactic that, as long as they're not fouls, can be well within the rules.”
“In the New York [Red Bulls] series, they did a job of stepping hard into Bradley Wright-Phillips, not giving him time to turn and face. But with every tactic there's a counter: be aware, move quickly, use the vacated spaces. It's cat and mouse.”
They have oodles of game tape on file from past encounters, yet TFC are still wary of the Impact throwing a curve.
“We've seen them a lot, more than anyone else,” said Vanney. “You can't assume everything will be the same. Both are trying to find the edge. That may mean something a little different. Last year [in the playoffs] was a prime example: They pressed us a lot higher; that wasn't how they played previously. They made an adjustment. We have to be less naive, be prepared for anything.”
And through it all, clawing at the back of the mind, will be yellow cards and the possibility of missing the second leg.
Three Toronto players are on warnings – Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore and Armando Cooper – while four of their Montreal counterparts are similarly at risk – Ciman, Hassoun Camara, Evan Bush and Johan Venegas.
“Don't take any unnecessary cards. Those are the ones we can do without,” warned Vanney. “If a guy has to make a play to preserve a result and that results in a card, those things happen. You can't stay out of every situation. What we've seen so far from referees, [was that they] haven't been quick to throw out cards. We want the games decided by players.”
So the Reds may try to get a quiet word in the ear of referee Juan Guzman.
“All players should,” said Vanney. “Say, 'let's work together. I'm going to play the game hard, if you think I'm getting somewhere, talk to me, and I'll bring it down.' Inherently, referees don't want to give cards, cause players to miss games. If players can create a working relationship with the referees, it's better for the game.”